The story of pencil’s inventor (Joe Dixon and His Writing Stick)
It took the civil war and 50 years of struggle by a determined man to show the American people that the pencil was here to stay.
In the early part of the 19th century, few Americans wrote with pencils. The only pencils available came from Europe and were not of good quality. They cost 25 cents each – at a time when that amount of money would buy a basketful of food.
The first American who saw the need for a good, inexpensive pencil was a 13-year-old boy in Marblehead. Massachusetts – Joe Dixon. His search for a way to fill this need occupied a great deal of his time and his thinking in the years that followed. Before he succeeded, he became an inventor of considerable importance.
Joe Dixon’s interest in pencils began with graphite – the soft, black substance used in making the “lead” for pencils. U.S. sailing ships trading in the Far East needed ballast on their return trips. Graphite, mined in Ceylon, made good ballast because it was heavy, easy to handle and cheap. Joe’s father was a ship-owner, and when his vessels returned to Marblehead they poured the graphite into the water of the bay.
Although Joe had never seen a pencil, his friend Francis Peabody told him how the lead was made – with graphite and clay. Mr. Peabody also described the shape of the two narrow strips of wood which, when stuck together, held the lead in place.
With the aid of another friend, Ebenezer Martin, Joe shaped two pieces of rounded cedar wood, each with a groove down the middle of the flat inside surface. Then he mixed graphite dust with clay and added water. Rolling a strip of this mixture into the form of a pencil lead, he baked it in an oven.
His First Pencil
When the lead was hard, he put it in the groove of one of the cedar sticks, applied glue to the inside surface of both sticks and pressed them together. After the glue had dried, Joe sharpened one end of his writing stick and tried it. It wrote ! Not perfectly, of course, but perhaps it was no worse than some of the pencils in use at that time.
Since Joe had no money to continue experimenting, he took a job at a kiln where he could earn a living and also learn about baking various materials. Later he moved on to other jobs, working in a Boston print shop for a while and then at the Hall Dye Works in Lynn, Massachusetts. At the dye works Joe built a machine to print designs on cloth.
Dixon was 23 when he married Hannah Martin, the daughter of his old friend Ebenezer. Their small cottage served both as a home and a workshop.
There he designed and built three machines for making pencils. One pressed the graphite-and-clay mixture through a tube that was the thickness of a pencil lead. Another cut narrow sear sticks into the proper lengths. The third put a groove in half a dozen sticks at one time. Hopefully he began to manufacture pencils.
The business was not an immediate success, but he learned to make better and better pencils as he gained experience. He continued with his experiments, buying raw materials in large quantities and soon found himself dangerously short of money. Then he had a change of fortune.
A Happy Accident
One day he bought a stove for his wife. It was one of the first iron stoves ever made in New England. In a week or two it became rusty, and Hannah was not able to keep it black and shiny.
With his mind on pencils, Joe paid little attention to the stove. But one day powdered graphite fell on the floor by accident. When he tried to clean it up, he slipped on the greasy stuff and fell on his face. His wife laughed and remarked that one side of his face was black and shiny.
“Stove Polish!” he quickly exclaimed.
He and Hannah polished the stove with graphite. It shone beautifully. Hannah’s friends all wanted the polish, and the young couple worked nights to package the new product. The demand grew so great that they had to hire people to help.
Soon Dixon’s Stove polish appeared in store all along the East coast. The money from its sales gave new life to his pencil business, and he opened a small factory at Salem, Massachusetts. By 1830 he could after pencils for ten cents each, but still there was little demand for them.
Although his pencil business made no progress, his tireless efforts led to discoveries which proved valuable in later years. Though experimentation he and Isaac Babbitt produced a metal which would not wear away under continuous friction.
By combining the knowledge gained from the jobs he had held, he developed a new printing process. The use of this process later built a great industry, but at first only counterfeiters realized its value.
When Dixon learned that counterfeiters were using his process to make banknotes, he dealt with the situation in an unusual way. One day he walked into a bank in New York City, placed a $100 bill on the president’s desk and asked him to exchange it for ten $10 bills. “First you should make sure that it’s not a counterfeit bill,” Dixon warned the banker.
The president examined it carefully and passed it to the cashier, saying, “ It’s as good as gold,” Then Dixon took off his hat – and dozens of $100 bills dropped out. “Take as many of these as you want,” he said to the banker. “I can make more at home,”
Then, taking another homemade bill from his pocket, he explained and idea he had for printing banknotes which counterfeiters would find difficult to copy. This was a method of printing with colored inks. “It’s a secret process in invented,” he said.
The president at the bank offered him a large sum of money for the invention. Instead, Dixon gave it without charge to all banks that issued paper money at that time.
Dixon’s expenses were now mounting, and losses from his pencil business were greater than the profits from stove polish. He decided to find a growing young industry and improve its products or its manufacturing processes. On a trip he learned that brass mills needed something better than the pots they had of melting metals. These pots often fell apart when heated to high temperatures.
In his workshop he mixed more graphite and clay, worked the mixture into the shape of a pot and baked it in a kiln. Then he filled the pot with big pieces of zine and copper and heated them to the melting point. The 1980-degree heat reduced the metals to brass – but his pot did not break. He increased the heat to 2780 degrees, and the pot still remained unbroken.
When the United States was fighting a small war in Dixon’s graphite crucible was used in iron and steel mills. Orders for pots became more and more numerous.
To increase production, he built a factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. The crucible department was located at one end of the plant, and the stove polish and pencil departments at the other end.
After Dixon had been in the new plant for a year, he studied the results of his efforts. He found he had made $60,000on crucible but he had lost $5000 on pencils.
In 1849, Eberhard maker, established a company in New York. At about the same time the Eagle Pencil Company was formed. But Business was slow for the two new companies and for Dixon. The lead pencil had not yet become popular.
It finally won popularity during the Civil War, when the need for a dry, clean writing instrument became widespread. Soldiers wanted to write letters home, but they couldn’t easily carry pens and ink. Pencils were the answer!
Shortly afterwards, Joe Dixon invented a machine which shaped enough wood for 132 pencils per minute. Still it was almost impossible to fill the demand. By 1872 Dixon pencils were flowing from his factory at the rate of 86,000 each day. The five-cent writing stick was at last a reality. Joe Dixon died in 1869 at the age of 70. The company he started is today one of the largest manufactures of lead pencils in the world. The firm still bears his name, though none of the Dixon family owns any part of the business.
About a billion and a half lead pencils are sold each year in the United States. The writing stick which Dixon struggled to produce is the most widely used of all our small gadgets today.
Inexpensive, low in price; not costly
Inventor, a person who invents things. To invent is to think of and develop something new - a process, a design, a machine.
Graphite, substance used in making “lead” for pencils
Ballast, heavy material placed in a ship to keep it steady when it has no goods to carry
Clay, a soft, sticky kind of earth which becomes hard when baked
Cedar, a kind of tree
Groove, a long, narrow, hollow cut in the surface.
Glue, a substance used for sticking things together
Kiln, a large oven or closed fireplace used for baking, burning or drying
Dye works, a place where colors are applied to cloth
Cottage, a very small house
Tube, a long, hollow pipe
Raw materials, materials still in their natural or original state, before processing or manufacture
Stove, something sued for cooking and heating.
Rusty, discolored by rust. Rust is a reddish coating which forms on iron, especially in wet weather.
Greasy, oily or slippery
Polish, a substance used to make a surface smooth and bright
Package, put in containers
Friction, the rubbing of one thing against another
Counterfeiters, persons who make counterfeit (false) money
Banknotes, paper money
Cashier, a person who receives and pays out money in a bank or business office
Brass, a yellow metal
Pots, large vessels or containers with covers on them
Zinc and copper, metals used in making brass
Crucible, a pot for melting metals at high temperature.
Instrument, an object used for performing a task
Gadget, any small, useful object